After two long years, Zoom’s stranglehold on local government meetings is loosening.
In-person meetings are back – or nearly back.
Local governments have been allowed to meet in-person for the better part of a year, but most have opted against it until recently.
Spokane, Liberty Lake and Cheney city councils returned to in-person meetings this month, either just before or soon after Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the statewide mask mandate. The Spokane Valley City Council has been meeting in-person since July, and Deer Park City Council has been back since September.
The Airway Heights City Council and the Spokane County Commission are the remaining stragglers. Both intend to return to in-person meetings early next month.
In-person local government meetings probably haven’t been missed by many. Even before the pandemic, few people attended them.
There haven’t been throngs of local political junkies champing at the bit to watch policy debates from the front row of the Spokane City Council Chambers. And some local government fanatics now prefer watching meetings from the comfort of their sofas. They may never return to city halls or the county courthouse now that livestreams are ubiquitous.
Still, politicians and residents generally agree in-person meetings have value, even if that value’s hard to quantify. At the very least, in-person meetings give the public more opportunities to interact with their representatives.
Spokane Valley City Council member Ben Wick, who was mayor last year, said he was eager to return to in-person meetings as quickly as possible.
“I think discussions are easier to go through and have in person,” Wick said. “You can kind of see the body language a bit easier and have more of a true, focused discussion.”
The Spokane County Commissioners often met in-person last year, but they only allowed the public to attend their meetings via Zoom.
That approach appears to have violated Gov. Jay Inslee’s public meetings proclamation, according to Mike Faulk, the governor’s press secretary. The proclamation allowed governments to meet in person, with restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19. It includes the following passage: “Any person wishing to attend in person a public meeting with an in-person component must be able to do so at a physical location meeting the requirements herein, either in a primary meeting location or an overflow physical location that provides the ability for all persons attending the meeting to hear each other at the same time.”
The Spokesman-Review attempted to attend a County Commissioner meeting in person over the summer but was turned away.
The newspaper repeated the request minutes before the commissioners’ Jan. 11 meeting, this time alerting the county to the language in the governor’s proclamation. The county denied that request, too, but the commissioners stopped meeting in person that day and have met virtually since.
Jared Webley, Spokane County’s spokesman, said the county always had public safety in mind and never violated the proclamation on purpose. He also noted that the county was experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases in January, due to the omicron variant.
County Commissioner Al French said the commissioners abandoned in-person meetings on the advice of legal counsel. The commissioners held an executive session Jan. 11 to discuss pending litigation due to open meetings.
French also noted that Commissioner Mary Kuney, the commissioners’ chair, hasn’t been fully comfortable meeting in-person. Kuney succeeded Kerns as chair in January and has often been the lone commissioner to wear a mask at public meetings.
Spokane County isn’t the only government to meet in person while prohibiting in-person public attendance.
The Liberty Lake City Council held some in-person meetings even though the public had to attend virtually, interim city manager Jen Camp said. Camp said the city only kept the public away because it was fixing its HVAC system at the time.
The county has also been doing renovations that affect its ability to hold in-person meetings.
For months, the county has been upgrading its public hearing room. It’s a more than $90,000 project that will dramatically improve the technological capabilities of the space and allow the county to livestream meetings.
“This gets us from the ‘90s into the 2020s,” Webley said.
Supply chain delays have slowed down the upgrade effort, Webley explained. Important electronics that the county ordered months ago still haven’t arrived.
Kuney has said in recent weeks that she doesn’t want to return to in-person meetings until the hearing room is ready, which should be around April 11.
The hearing room has enough seating capacity that attendees will be able to spread out, Kuney said, whereas the commissioners’ conference room is small and can only seat about 30 people. She added the thought of holding a public meeting in a jam-packed conference room makes her uneasy.
Kerns has pushed back against Kuney and said that the county should resume in-person public meetings sooner.
The conference room is sufficient, he said, because hardly anyone attends county meetings anyway.
“We rarely saw folks come in for our consent agenda meetings,” he pointed out. “One or two people max was all we ever saw.”